Usual and Not-so-Usual Chapel Services Greet Students


Praise music, scripture reading, prayers, homilies–and a dash of COVID-19 humor–greeted Abilene university students this week as they returned to campus after an extra long spring break that morphed into summer.

Like most colleges nationwide, Abilene’s three universities shut down on-campus classes after spring break due to the COVID pandemic. Classes were held online for the remainder of the spring semester, with the fall session being a virtual/physical hybrid. That’s why the greeting at McMurry University’s opening chapel service on Tuesday, Aug. 25, was especially meaningful.

“Good morning and welcome back!” an enthusiastic Julia Puac-Romero said in opening the service. Puac-Romero is assistant chaplain at the United Methodist university.

Students sat apart in Radford Auditorium, with face coverings and the proper social distancing separating them. Alternating rows were marked off with humorous signs such as:

“Jesus sat the 5,000 down in rows…But not this one.”

“I have prepared a place for you…Just not this row.”

The opening chapel services followed traditional formats at McMurry and Hardin-Simmons University, while ACU’s opening took on an entirely different look. ACU broke with a longstanding tradition by not having its opening ceremony, with its pageantry, Parade of Flags, the Big Purple Band, a combined choir, and the unfurling of a massive U.S. flag at the end of the ceremony.

ACU also is dropping its traditional daily chapel in Moody Coliseum for the fall semester, opting for small community groups, defined as six to eight people, and virtual presentations. The small group gathering is much like what Jesus’ early followers experienced, Cyrus Eaton, ACU’s Dean of Spiritual Formation and Campus Chaplain, said in a video. Theme for the fall semester will be “Life With Jesus: reimagining discipleship in an age of uncertainty.” 

“This year,” Eaton said on the video, “we are really excited to present an opportunity to gather in community groups.” 

ACU, affiliated with the Churches of Christ, and Hardin-Simmons, a Baptist University, require a combination of chapel and spiritual formation credits, while McMurry does not. ACU and HSU students have ample opportunities to fill the spiritual formation credits, such as attending approved enrichment events or volunteering with local nonprofits. Those are in addition to chapel services and other events presented through their spiritual life offices.

Hardin-Simmons is holding in-person chapel services in Behrens Auditorium on a rotating basis. Beginning Tuesday, Sept. 8, freshmen and sophomores will gather in Behrens. On Sept. 10, juniors and seniors will worship in person.

In the photo at left, McMurry students and faculty give each other a virtual high five during opening chapel Aug. 25. In the photo at right, Holly Edwards, associate dean of students at Hardin-Simmons University, gives a meditation on the 23rd Psalm during opening chapel Aug. 25. In the top photo, a humorous sign greets students at McMurry chapel service. Photos by Loretta Fulton

We will have an online option as well for students who have preexisting health conditions,” Travis Craver, Director of Chapel and Spiritual Formation, said in an email.

For the Tuesday, Aug. 25, opening chapel service at HSU, only freshmen and sophomores attended, with others invited to join online. The service was a combination of live speakers, praise band, and videos. Faith, fear, belief, disbelief–how can we reconcile those? Craver asked. Why is there suffering?

“These are a few of the questions we will be trying to answer in chapel this fall,” Craver said. 

Across town at McMurry University, Marty CashBurless, University Chaplain and Director of Religious & Spiritual Life, said the theme for chapel this year will be “Living in Faith.” CashBurless welcomed new and returning students to campus and noted that life will be different this academic year, with COVID-19 still a threat. CashBurless urged students to follow health guidelines and stay faithful as they navigate an uncertain future.

“I can guarantee you,” she said, “God is not giving up on me or you.”

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